When Chen Rui finally found a man he adored and who didn’t mind that Chen uses a wheelchair, the stares from everyone else drove them apart. People gave them strange looks every time the pair showed affection in public. “Our relationship became very fragile and ended after two months,” Chen says, following a long pause.
Originally from the southern city of Guangzhou, Chen, 22, tells Sixth Tone that he came out to his parents in 2015. They worried that his “choice” would complicate his life, he says. A year later, he injured his spine in a car accident, paralyzing his legs. He had become a cantong — an LGBT person who has a disability.
In recent years, sexual minorities have gained greater visibility and acceptance in China, due in part to support from an increasing number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to their cause. Meanwhile, people with disabilities have also begun to speak out against outdated views and enjoy increased support from the government. However, individuals at the intersection of these two identities, like Chen, often feel voiceless — outsiders in both groups.
“I feel discriminated against within the community of sexual minorities and within the community of disabled people,” Chen says.
Cantong likely number in the millions in China, though the exact figure is unknown. China’s LGBT population is estimated at around 90 million, or around 6 percent of the total population. According to the last national census in 2010, there are more than 85 million people with disabilities in China. Six percent of that figure would put the number of cantong at more than 5 million.
Chen feels that his disability has limited his dating options, but that’s not his biggest concern. As a senior in university, his priority is finding a good job. He has only applied for positions at multinational companies in China’s most developed cities, because he believes they are more open to hiring both LGBT employees and people with disabilities. Though there is a range of government incentives for companies to hire people with disabilities, “many companies would rather pay extra taxes to avoid hiring someone like me who sits in a wheelchair, as [they believe] we cause trouble and affect work efficiency,” Chen says.
Thomas Wang, also a cantong — the 38-year-old has cerebral palsy and identifies as gay — has encountered numerous obstacles in his career. Wang majored in English in university, but his disability has limited his job opportunities as a teacher in Jilin province, northeastern China. It’s difficult for Wang to write on the blackboard, though he is confident that he would otherwise be qualified for most teaching jobs. Because the economy in the northeast has been lackluster, the jobs that are available go to nondisabled people, Wang says: “Employment discrimination is a serious issue here.”
In 2003, Wang received a full scholarship to a master’s degree program in the U.S. During his time there, he says, he discovered how “comprehensively” the American legal system protects people with disabilities. For example, restaurants there are required to offer accessible facilities. “I saw people with disabilities, whether they were blind or in a wheelchair, travel on their own [in the U.S.] because society has created a friendly environment,” he recalls. In comparison, he says, the Chinese system is “extremely incomplete.”
A wheelchair user rides an escalator in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, May 4, 2015. Li Zhanjun/VCG
In China, people with disabilities are mostly referred to as canzhang, which includes a character meaning “barrier” — an unfortunate, if in some ways fitting, connotation. For them, going outside means navigating an endless succession of obstacles, even in developed cities like Shanghai. Restrooms with accessible facilities are hard to find, and tactile sidewalks, while ubiquitous, are often blocked by various objects.
Wang now works as the director of a private English language school in Jilin. He doesn’t dare disclose his sexuality at work for fear that it would affect his career. “The social environment doesn’t allow me to come out,” he says. “People in northeastern China are very conservative.”
Unlike in some Western countries where LGBT rights movements started in the 1950s, the Chinese LGBT community has only recently begun to speak out. Stereotypes — such as the idea that only young, well-educated, well-off gay men can represent the community — dominate the movement; older people, rural residents, or those with a disability are expected to remain in the background.
Wang believes that China desperately needs an organization that focuses on cantong. “When we can come together, we can at least have a sense of social identity and know that we are not alone,” Wang says. He suggests that such an organization should strive to strengthen job security among cantong. “[Job] opportunities are as small as a dot, and sometimes we feel like we have nowhere to go, nowhere to turn,” Wang sighs.
Now 37, Han Zhen lost his sight when he was 20. He learned massage therapy at a school for people with visual impairments and worked at several massage parlors — one of the few careers commonly open to people with limited vision — before he was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2008. He has since lived on welfare.
Han lives in Dalian, a major city in northeastern China’s Liaoning province. There, he says, most blind people work in the massage industry, and everyone knows one another. “If we ever come out in the workplace, it’s very likely that we will be discriminated against by customers, or even get fired,” Han says. Two friends of his who are blind cantong lost their masseuse jobs when their employers found out they were gay, he says, adding that word spread quickly, and it was nearly impossible for them to find work again in Dalian. “Though it’s easy for nondisabled people to relocate for a new job, it’s difficult for people with visual impairments to do so,” he says.
In 2010, hoping to meet more cantong and help them accept themselves, Han launched a hotline and started a group on messaging app QQ. Over the past eight years, he has spoken to several hundred cantong all over China. Yet to his disappointment, he’s still just one of a few who are brave enough to stand up and let society know that cantong exist. “We are afraid of coming out, as society discriminates against both disabled people and sexual minorities,” Han says. “We belong to both groups yet are stuck in between.”
The establishment of a cantong NGO, Han says, could at least help cantong meet one another for the sake of matchmaking or dating. Such groups already exist for those with disabilities, but they cater to heterosexual people. Han has dated a few men whom he met through dating apps, but he says most gay men think it’s a lot of trouble to date a blind man. “To be honest, if I weren’t blind, I wouldn’t date a disabled person either,” he admits.
Born in 1964, Shanghai native Lin Qian has mild cerebral palsy and echoes Han’s views. “I’m disabled already; if my partner were also disabled, imagine how hard life would be,” he tells Sixth Tone. But the reality, he says, is that nondisabled prospective partners rarely give him a second glance. Like many other older gay men, Lin didn’t realize he was gay until relatively recently — for him, it was in 2000, when he learned how to surf the internet. However, he says he has no plans to come out to family or friends.
When Lin was 19, he was unable to sit the national college entrance exam due to his disability. Back then, only people who passed a physical exam could take the test. “That was an enormous blow to me,” Lin recalls. But he didn’t give up: Lin took night classes and later found a job as an accountant at a private company, where he has worked for the past 30 years.
By the time Zhang Bin took the college entrance exam in 2006, China had outlawed discrimination against test-takers with disabilities. Zhang chose a language major, thinking it would be easier to find jobs as a polio survivor — he needs to use his hand to support his left leg when walking. For two years after graduation, he worked at a multinational company in Shanghai that actively recruited people with disabilities.
While in Shanghai, Zhang was in an open relationship with a nondisabled gay man. He also had a yearlong relationship with another gay man who was sexually attracted to his deformed feet. “But I’ve never experienced deep love or met a soulmate,” Zhang confesses.
Zhang now lives and works in Changsha, the capital of central China’s Hunan province. In the country’s heartland, gay life is less vibrant and open than in cities like Beijing or Shanghai due to deeply rooted traditional values. “In Changsha, a topic like LGBT is rarely discussed,” Zhang says. He never goes to the gay bar in town. “I don’t want to deal with the strange looks from people at the bar,” he explains.
Because many cantong fear they wouldn’t be able to find a job if they moved to another city for love, many of them are in long-distance relationships. Wang, the school director in Jilin, has a boyfriend who lives in Jinan — 1,100 kilometers away in eastern China’s Shandong province. The couple see each other a few times a year and call or message every day. They’ve tried to find jobs in the same city, but to no avail. “When we are retired and don’t need to worry about work and money,” Wang says, “then we can live together and enjoy the rest of our lives as a couple.”
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: ONOKY/VCG)